If the movers and shakers on the International Rugby Board think they can subdue a team as insanely competitive as Munster by emasculating one of most overwhelmingly physical forward packs in the world game with a few half-witted tweaks in the laws department, they would be well advised to think again. Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace? Hell will freeze over before these people play like eunuchs, no matter what rules and regulations are foisted upon them.
The reigning European champions stared down Sale before a capacity audience at Edgeley Road yesterday and in so doing, they served notice of their determination to emulate the outstanding Leicester side of the early years of this decade by retaining their title. "You don't win Heineken Cup tournaments in October," pointed out Wallace, who played an influential hand at No 8 after being moved from his more customary open-side position following a stuttering opening-round victory over Montauban. "However, you can certainly lose them in October. We'd been under pressure all week, so we had to come out fighting here. This result is a big relief."
Relief was not a word that sprang to Philippe Saint-André's mind as he reflected on events that comprehensively undermined Sale's startling victory over Clermont Auvergne, his old club, in France eight days previously.
The Sale director of rugby openly acknowledged his regret at not including the occasional England outside-half Charlie Hodgson in his starting line-up – "I make the decisions; sometimes, they're right, sometimes they're wrong," he said – and was forced to admit that Munster were the more mature side. "They are not champions because they are lucky," he remarked. "They did to us what we did to Clermont. They showed us how to win a game of rugby."
Saint-André unshackled Hodgson five minutes into the second half, withdrawing the disappointing Dwayne Peel and shifting Richard Wigglesworth to the No 9 role, and the reorganisation paid early dividends in the shape of 10 home points that levelled the argument at 16-apiece.
Luke McAlister kicked a penalty from a difficult position towards the right touchline and Dean Schofield galloped free for a converted try down the middle after some intelligent distribution by Hodgson and a sharp run into the Munster 22 from another recent arrival, the 21-year-old hooker Marc Jones. Suddenly, the Irishmen looked vulnerable.
But Munster rarely stay vulnerable for long. Sale badly needed another strike, preferably one of the immediate variety, but with Quinlan and Wallace working their fingers to the bone at the breakdown and the Tongan centre Lifeimi Mafi frightening the living daylights out of his hosts with some Pacific Island tackling that was distinctly unlikely to make peace with anyone, the home side found themselves in brick wall territory. Within four minutes, Munster were back on the offensive with a vengeance, and although Ronan O'Gara was denied three points after hitting the top of a post with a left-sided penalty attempt – the Test stand-off was utterly convinced the ball bounced inside the sticks – Wallace effectively put the contest to bed by wrenching himself over in the right corner following a short-side scamper off a scrum by Tomas O'Leary and Mafi's sweet pass out of contact.
To their credit, Sale summoned the furies in the last few minutes to lay siege to the Munster line, but although both Mathew Tait and Wigglesworth found themselves within millimetres of the line in the space of 20 seconds, there was nothing doing on the Munster capitulation front.
In fact, the Irishmen marched back upfield, drove a maul off an O'Callaghan line-out delivery and gave O'Gara the opportunity to drop a magisterial wrap-up goal from somewhere near halfway. As Saint-André agreed afterwards, they were excellent value for their victory. Sale were predictably gung-ho from the kick-off, but in the absence of the suspended Kristian Ormsby, their in-form lock from New Zealand, they were just a little light in and around the eye of the storm.
If this takes some believing, given the presence of a ruthless French prop in Lionel Faure and a genuine heavyweight from Wales in the interesting shape of Eifion Roberts – not forgetting, of course, the wild-eyed bruiser Sébastien Chabal – it is fair to say that when it comes to a full-on scrap, Munster remain cocks of the walk.
It is also worth pointing out that after years of winning games through a dark mix of power and passion, they now play a good deal of bright rugby with ball in hand. Why wouldn't they, with the brilliant All Black counter-attacker Doug Howlett on the right wing and a pair of free spirits at full-back and centre in Paul Warwick and Keith Earls? Warwick had an especially enjoyable afternoon, slipping clear for a try on the left after excellent approach work from O'Gara and Quinlan before nailing a drop goal from the back end of beyond to give Munster a 13-3 lead early in the second quarter – a lead on which their victory was constructed.
Sale are perfectly capable of winning their next two pool games, home and away against Montauban in December, but in all likelihood, they will have to beat Munster in Limerick in January in order to reach the knock-out stage. Hodgson may be back in a starting position by then, but on this evidence, it will not make a blind bit of difference.
Sale: Try Schofield; Conversion McAlister; Penalties McAlister 3. Munster: Tries Warwick, Wallace; Conversion O'Gara; Penalties O'Gara 2; Drop goals Warwick, O'Gara.
Sale: R Lamont; M Cueto, L McAlister, R Keil, D Doherty; R Wigglesworth, D Peel (C Hodgson, 45); L Faure, N Briggs (M Jones, 45), E Roberts (S Turner, 68), S Chabal (J White, 57), B Cockbain (D Schofield, 51), C Jones (M Tait, 75), L Abrahams, J M Fernandez Lobbe (capt).
Munster: P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, L Mafi, I Dowling; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt), A Quinlan (D Ryan 67), J O'Sullivan (J Melck 53, B Murphy 82), D Wallace.
Referee: C Berdos (France).Reuse content